Claire Weisz

Claire Weisz is a found­ing part­ner of WXY Archi­tec­ture + Urban Design, an award-win­ning, mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tice known for the inno­v­a­tive design of build­ings, civic infra­struc­ture, and pub­lic open space around New York City.

We first inter­viewed her weeks before Hur­ri­cane Sandy struck New York, but we begin with a fol­low-up con­ver­sa­tion not long after the storm passed.

WeiszPortrait

Your recent work for New York includes many projects that fell in the direct path of Hur­ri­cane Sandy: new­ly built Trans­mit­ter Park in Green­point, pub­lic build­ings for the beach at Far Rock­away, pub­lic archi­tec­ture in Bat­tery Park that flood­ed at the tip of Man­hat­tan, and on top of that, you’re now work­ing on the East River Blue­way, again at the water’s edge. Tell us about Sandy’s effect on your work.

The parks per­formed well, and they helped the water­front absorb the impact from the storm surge. The parks have sur­vived in great mea­sure the salt water in the Bat­tery and Green­point and the sand in Far Rock­away. This is tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion that they came back with­in three weeks of the storm with the help of many vol­un­teers and staff, who devot­ed hours to clean up those areas.

It is the elec­tri­cal and mechan­i­cal infra­struc­ture that didn’t sur­vive the storm surge, and now the city and state are hav­ing to do a great deal to repair and re-install dam­aged equip­ment. Hard hit were the offices of many of our pub­lic and not-for-prof­it clients – the Bat­tery whose office and archives were dev­as­tat­ed, Jill Weber and her team in the Rock­aways whose offices were severe­ly dam­aged. Many agen­cies have staff who also have dam­aged homes.

Did the storm change the way you think about the city’s water­front? Or might design for the water­front, going for­ward?

Yes. It gave us a direct under­stand­ing of 100-year, and 500-year, flood lines. This was a real­i­ty check in time, space, and effect. Now I will nev­er push to have util­i­ty infra­struc­ture with­in reach of even a 500 year line. But like oth­er cat­a­stroph­ic events it is impor­tant to not for­get, but to absorb and make a part of all the design deci­sions one has going for­ward. Espe­cial­ly when mak­ing the hard deci­sion of what to choose to do first.

As a design­er of pub­lic space, if you were to boil down your reac­tions to the event, and came up with one take-away mes­sage for peo­ple to think about, what would it be? What would you like to see the city, and the coun­try, do going for­ward? Are there adap­tive meth­ods or infra­struc­ture would you like to see put into accel­er­at­ed use?

Pri­or­i­tize the envi­ron­ment by invest­ing in the resilien­cy of cities and their res­i­dents, and this includes not just New York, but all impor­tant water­front cities.

As a coun­try we have to real­ize that the best way to save the plan­et is to sup­port the fact that our cities all over the coun­try — from Detroit to New Orleans — present the best oppor­tu­ni­ty for low­er­ing our car­bon foot­print and are crit­i­cal play­ers in safe­guard­ing our rural spaces and agri­cul­tur­al lands.

We need to make cities — and peo­ple who live and work in cities — a nation­al pri­or­i­ty, and invest in inno­va­tions in social and civic infra­struc­ture like pub­lic hous­ing and trans­porta­tion and all types of pub­lic open spaces on and near the water­front. This will be the best invest­ment we can make in light of the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of cli­mate change. It was amaz­ing how grate­ful peo­ple were that the 2011 revival of East River fer­ry ser­vice was there to fill in when the sub­ways weren’t run­ning yet.

Do you think the city should build sea gates? 

I hope that we will inno­vate in many areas and this might include sea gates. It is going to test the city and state’s abil­i­ties to har­ness a coor­di­nat­ed effort to do all types of envi­ron­men­tal work that is not on the table today, because of per­mit­ting and cur­rent reg­u­la­tions. New York City in all the five bor­oughs needs to raise the lev­el of many of the water­front lands for storm pro­tec­tion and raise crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture in our pub­lic hous­ing, hos­pi­tals, sewage treat­ment and util­i­ty build­ings.

We need to put back and increase the dunes, invest in cogen­er­a­tion and a dis­bursed pow­er and data net­work, and even build new sea gates, salt marsh­es, plant­ed berms and oth­er ini­tia­tives. This increas­es the local exper­tise with ris­ing sea lev­els; engi­neers, archi­tects and ecol­o­gists might come up with a range of mea­sures that even the Dutch haven’t tried yet. As impor­tant as sea gates might also be state-of-the-art local ener­gy gen­er­a­tion and data hubs.

Our first inter­view with Claire Weisz took place weeks before Hur­ri­cane Sandy struck New York. That por­tion fol­lows:

WeiszRockaway1

Can you tell us about some of the cur­rent projects you’re work­ing on in the city, like the Rock­away project?

The Rock­away project is the archi­tec­tural piece of a mas­ter plan for a very unusu­al park. It was basi­cal­ly a lit­tle tiny park attached to a very large park­ing lot that was real­ly part of the dunes and was used for dump­ing, from Beach 9th Street to Beach 30th Street.

When you say it was used for dump­ing…

Peo­ple thought it was dere­lict land and they’d leave things there. The Rock­aways is so chal­lenged envi­ron­men­tal­ly from threats of storms and also because it’s such a mix of high pover­ty areas, rel­a­tive trans­porta­tion iso­la­tion, and beau­ti­ful envi­ron­ment. It’s become an afford­able place for peo­ple to move, but it also has real eco­nom­ic chal­lenges and it doesn’t have all of the ser­vices and ameni­ties. So one of the tar­get parks that the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion focused on was to cre­ate a real ameni­ty out there. So, every­one want­ed a pool, but they got instead lots of water play, a skate­board park, more play­grounds, a big lawn for con­certs, a foot­ball field.

The idea is that you have a func­tion­al thing, the main­te­nance office, a com­fort sta­tion, but then you have this space and there’s kind of a dune park over here.

Attached to a com­fort sta­tion is an open air class­room or com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing space — some­thing that can be a shade struc­ture when noth­ing is hap­pen­ing, but that also becomes the beach pavil­ion shared by every­one.

Was the intent to ser­vice main­ly just that com­mu­ni­ty? Or to allow oth­er peo­ple from oth­er com­mu­ni­ties to use it as well?

The intent was to actu­al­ly do some­thing sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in Bat­tery Park City. They cre­at­ed the best play­ground around and every­one from the whole city showed up there, which is not sur­pris­ing. That was a sim­i­lar goal in the Rock­aways. To open up the neigh­bor­hood. And it’s already hap­pened appar­ent­ly. Peo­ple are show­ing up at the skate park [from all over].

Tell us about anoth­er project you’re work­ing on.

Anoth­er project — also a water­front park — is called Trans­mit­ter Park. It’s part of the Green­point mas­ter plan, and it ties together…have you seen the zip­per bench­es?

Down at the Staten Island fer­ry ter­mi­nal?

Yes. We were doing the mas­ter plan for the park, and try­ing to fig­ure out the urban design and zon­ing issues of mak­ing peo­ple feel like the esplanade was going to be pub­lic. We start­ed to explore this idea of a bench that then turned and took you some­where.

Then we real­ized that that idea of the bench­es had a lot to do with some of the things we felt urban design need­ed to do. One is encom­pass­ing an envi­ron­men­tal idea of pub­lic — what they shared, what things, like trees, need to be pro­tect­ed, and how to occu­py space and make real­ly good rela­tion­ships.

Out of that mas­ter plan we’re doing one piece of [Trans­mit­ter Park] as a park with Dar Walkovitch of A-com, the land­scape archi­tects. And we’ve designed the pier and you’ll see all of the rail­ing, and the bench­es, and this pret­ty inter­est­ing pier. Only half of it’s being built. It’s actu­al­ly a branch­ing idea. So it’s an idea of sav­ing mon­ey actu­al­ly to do piers, where you only put the pile foun­da­tions, the piers, at what we call pods, and then you have the­se lit­tle bridges that con­nect the pods.

 And that’s just phase one?

Well, already, you’ll go down if you take the fer­ry, already pieces of it are being built,  and as each devel­op­er devel­ops prop­er­ty parts of the esplanade will be built. And Bush­wick Inlet Park is also part of that mas­ter plan.

And what else is on the dock­et for the mas­ter plan? How far into the future does the plan reach?

The whole thing is ongo­ing and it’s hap­pen­ing as we speak. It’s real­ly inter­est­ing to see that pub­lic realm being built one piece at a time. And I have to say, on Trans­mit­ter Park, I went there the oth­er week and there’s this fan­tas­tic new lit­tle cof­fee shop in a place that was a dead end street.

It must be sat­is­fy­ing to see the­se spaces being occu­pied.

Com­plete­ly sat­is­fy­ing to see… peo­ple have all the­se ideas. What’s also fun about Trans­mit­ter Park is it’s a site for the Nuit Blanche fes­ti­val, so that’ll be out there.

The oth­er big project that we have under con­struc­tion is the san­i­ta­tion garage and salt shed on Spring Street, and that’s also worth talk­ing about.  That’s a big indus­tri­al, city project to house three garage units, main­tain vehi­cles, store salt, refu­el garbage trucks, house san­i­ta­tion per­son­nel. And you can see the steel going up.

So what kind of things are you think­ing of for the san­i­ta­tion garage?

Well the san­i­ta­tion garage is designed and it’s now under con­struc­tion and real­ly that was devel­oped kind of twofold. How to do a beau­ti­ful, but yet, not aggres­sive build­ing; a build­ing that was very calm and could feel like a good neigh­bor. But the excit­ing thing about it is that all the guts of it are kind of shield­ed by lou­vers which are kind of com­posed to make sub­tle dif­fer­ences on the West side and on the South side.

Is that to dis­guise the build­ing from the rest of the neigh­bor­hood?

In a way. In a way it’s to not say in super graph­ics, “here’s a big garage here” towards the neigh­bor­hood, but towards the West Side High­way it’s very appar­ent. But the idea is to not make it look like an office build­ing — to actu­al­ly make it look like the piece of indus­tri­al civic archi­tec­ture that it is. [But] there won’t be any pub­lic access to it if you’re not a san­i­ta­tion work­er.

We’re try­ing to real­ly enhance the indus­tri­al qual­i­ty of it and make peo­ple want to go in, and we hope there will be tours actu­al­ly, of the trucks and every­thing because there’s a lot of poten­tial for that. And to be able to have kids real­ly access and see how big the­se machi­nes are, what it takes to kind of clean them. So when they see a garbage truck going down the street pick­ing up recy­cling they’ll have a whole new appre­ci­a­tion for it.

What’s your back­ground?

I grew up in Canada, and I went to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to for archi­tec­ture. Got my pro­fes­sion­al degree there. Then, the econ­o­my was ter­ri­ble — so basi­cal­ly, on a lark, I decid­ed to go to Los Ange­les. Los Ange­les at that point was an inter­est­ing place to be as an archi­tect. Frank Gehry had just fin­ished his lit­tle house, there was all sorts of dia­logue about down­town LA, and peo­ple were look­ing at city halls as com­mu­ni­ty.

I felt very lucky; I worked for archi­tect Charles Moore at the Urban Inno­va­tions Group and real­ly got inter­est­ed in the idea of how design and com­mu­ni­ties and kind of new things hap­pen.

So that’s always been a real inter­est, but very much as an archi­tect. I would say at a core I am inter­est­ed in form, space, light and inhab­it­abil­i­ty, I’ll call it. I’m inter­est­ed in archi­tec­ture being the kind of ‘art of peo­ple.’

I went back to school at Yale and that’s where I met Mark Yoes, who is my cur­rent part­ner. After I grad­u­at­ed I worked for Agrest and Gan­del­sonas, who are very inter­est­ed in…I’ll call it ‘acupunc­ture plan­ning.’ The idea that you kind of can read a city and do cer­tain things at cer­tain points that will change the city more. They’re very anti-mas­ter plan. I was very com­pelled by that, so I worked for them. 

What do you think New York needs more of? Just more green spaces, or some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent?

I think what New York always needs more of is pas­sion­ate, vision­ary sup­port­ers, and essen­tial­ly clients for design, like Friends of the High Line, like Rob­by Ham­mond, Joshua David, and Rory Price at the Bat­tery, and Bet­sy Bar­low Rogers.

There are younger peo­ple who get ideas in Jamaica, in Far Rock­away, and see some­thing and they want it to be bet­ter than any­thing in the neigh­bor­hood — whether it’s bet­ter food, bet­ter seat­ing, bet­ter shade, bet­ter wi-fi — on some lev­el I think that’s what’s real­ly fun about New York. There exists an engage­ment in expec­ta­tion, and that’s real­ly what we need more of.

There are so many tal­ent­ed peo­ple who have ideas about how to make things and do things. The oth­er piece is sup­port­ing local tal­ent in the indus­try — peo­ple who make clothes and peo­ple who make rail­ings — and try­ing to find a way to cre­ate afford­able spaces so that peo­ple can make new things.

So there’s no real fixed idea in your head of what New York should be — it’s just sort of a nev­er-end­ing poten­tial of what could hap­pen?

To me it’s real­ly about the dynam­ic — this dynam­ic of say­ing, mak­ing a liv­ing and mak­ing mon­ey and doing well — that ambi­tion to cre­ate a busi­ness that’s suc­cess­ful is fan­tas­tic. But, cou­pled with that, we want it to be the BEST inte­ri­or restau­rant, we want it to be the best… those two things work­ing togeth­er, not just one or the oth­er. I think it’s that. Then you get the unex­pect­ed.

More recent design work from WXY includes a pop­u­lar plan for the devel­op­ment of Pier 40 on the Low­er West Side of Man­hat­tan, as shown in this video:


And a plan for the rede­vel­op­ment of the blocks around Grand Cen­tral Ter­mi­nal, as part of the Munic­i­pal Art Society’s new report on the future of East Mid­town

 

About:

Claire Weisz found­ed WXY Archi­tec­ture + Urban Design and has focused on cre­at­ing inno­v­a­tive approach­es to pub­lic space, struc­tures and cities. She co-found­ed with Andrea Wood­ner The Design Trust for Pub­lic Space and was its co-exec­u­tive direc­tor. Claire is cur­rent­ly on fac­ul­ty at New York University’s Wag­n­er School of Pub­lic Ser­vice and a vis­it­ing crit­ic at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, and she has also taught and lec­tured at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty, Par­sons’ Grad­u­ate Pro­gram in the School of Con­struct­ed Envi­ron­ments, Columbia Uni­ver­si­ty, NJIT and The Pratt Insti­tute. She has served on numer­ous design award and com­pe­ti­tion juries and was co-edi­tor of AD magazine’s “Extreme Sites: Green­ing the Brown­field” issue. Fre­quent­ly cit­ed in the media and pro­fes­sion­al cir­cles, Claire is a reg­is­tered archi­tect in Cal­i­for­nia, New York and New Jer­sey.

Por­tait of Claire Weisz by Jes­si­ca Bru­ah; all oth­er images cour­tesy: WXY